Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative

WHAT: Policymakers and legislators in Washington, D.C., are able to call upon a resource when they have questions about complex issues at the intersection of business and economics. The Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative (Penn Wharton PPI), which kicked off in September of 2012, aims to harness the power of University expertise to inform decisions on issues that affect business and the economy, including health or flood insurance, and taxes and unemployment. One overarching mission, says Faculty Director Mark Duggan, “is to try to get the expertise of our faculty more in the mix with policymakers and potentially, the media, with the hope that these sorts of connections can lead to somewhat better policy. That’s a lot easier said than done.”

FUTURE POLICYMAKERS: Duggan, who is also a professor of business economics and public policy and a professor of health care management at Wharton, says the Penn Wharton PPI seeks to create more opportunities for students, both on campus and in Washington D.C. The Initiative has connected a handful of students interested in research to professors seeking help with projects, and also sponsors a series of talks on public policy issues, some of which may be especially germane to students’ lives. Andrew Coopersmith, managing director of the Penn Wharton PPI, says the hope is to involve “students and try to educate them about public policy and the impact it has on the economy, and hopefully energize and support those students in pursuing opportunities to work in public policy.”

SUMMER IN THE CITY: This summer, Penn Wharton PPI will provide stipends to between 40 and 50 University students interning in D.C. at notable places like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Committee on Finance. With these stipends, says Duggan, these extraordinary learning opportunities are open to all students—not just those who can afford to take an unpaid position during the summer.

BREAKING THROUGH THE NOISE: One way in which Penn Wharton PPI is distinguishing itself is by offering non-partisan, unbiased expert advice, sometimes on topics that aren’t frequently on the front pages of national newspapers. One recent event addressed flood insurance reform. “There’s so many organizations operating in D.C.,” Duggan says. “Part of the reason that we chose an area like flood insurance reform is it’s an area where we can differentiate ourselves a little bit.”

RAPID RESPONSE: Though the Penn Wharton PPI has been around for little more than a year-and-a-half, the Initiative already has 85 faculty affiliates from Wharton, Penn Arts & Sciences, Nursing, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Penn Law, the Perelman School of Medicine, and PennDesign. Students, too, have responded enthusiastically to the Penn Wharton PPI. “There’s also just been an unmet need among students who have been interested in public policy but haven’t found a centralized resource for helping them explore it in the way that they want to explore it,” says Coopersmith. “Engaging students has been, in some way, the easiest part of the Initiative because there has been this ready demand for what we have to offer.”

IN THE FUTURE: Duggan says the challenge for the Penn Wharton PPI will be to continue to gauge which topics will be of interest to policymakers in the nation’s capital. In addition, they hope to engage more students with the Initiative and get them excited about and interested in public policy as a career. Coopersmith agrees: “We don’t have any illusions that we’re going to revolutionize policymaking in D.C., but if, over time, we can become a go-to resource for reliable and smart public policy thinking, and maybe move the dial slightly in a positive direction, I would consider that a win.”